Historical Events

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Helge Ingstad lands in the remote Alaskan wilderness and meets the Nunamiut Eskimo - a carnivorous hunter-gatherer tribe dependent upon the caribou. He asks to stay the winter and is granted his wish.

September 1, 1949

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Nunamuit: Among Alaska's Inland Eskimos

Helge Ingstad

Man The Fat Hunter
Facultative Carnivore
Eskimo
Carnivore Diet

Suddenly we were over another lake. "Raven Lake (Tulugaq)," Andy said laconically and laid the plane over. We were going down.


As we steered in toward the bank, I caught a glimpse of a cluster of tents up on the slope. People came running at full speed out of the mist. Before we reached land they were all by the water, a small party of skin-clad Eskimos on a beach. 


I landed, and met smiles and curious loks from hunters, women, and a pack of children of all ages. I greeted each of them separately. They were tall, strong people with the wiry agility characteristic of mountain dwellers. Open, friendly faces; gleaming white teeth. The children croweded round me without shyness and chattered away in Eskimo with a boldness I rarely saw in the half-civilized Eskimo children on the coast. They were all dressed in caribou-skin anoraks, splendidly edged with the skin of wolf and wolverine.


....

We were met by a vast number of dogs straining at their chains, barking and yelping full-throatedly. Here were the tents, a dozen in all, queer dome-shaped habitations shaped like snow huts. Smoke rose into the air from crooked chimneys. In the neighbourhood of each tent were stagings of willow sticks, where hides and large slabs of caribou meat were hanging out to dry. Several heavy sledges stood about in the heather. 


We stopped at one of the tents, and Paniaq held open the door--a large hanging bearskin. I sat on the floor, and the tent was soon crammed full. 


There was plenty of room in the tent, and it was very pleasant there, with sweet-smelling willow boughs, and caribou skins on the floor and everything in good order. Apart from these things, there were so many new impressions that I could not take in all the details. I noticed the curious construction of the tent, the many curved stakes on which the caribou skins rested, the pale eyes in a caribou head flung down by the stove, a face or two which stood out from the rest, a girl's smile. And I wondered what the Eskimos were thinking.


A man appeared in the doorway with one fist full of caribou tongues. I was told that he had just come back from hunting and that the tongues were a present for me by way of welcome.


It was clear that nothing was to be said about my affairs for the present. First we must eat. The tent was filled with a strong odour issuing from the cooking-pot on the stove. The meat was laid on a plate, and we attacked it. I felt myself at home; there was much to remind me of the years in which I lived among Indian caribou hunters in northern Canada. 


A dirty rag was passed round, and we wiped the fat from our hands. One or two of the hunters began to clean their teeth by drawing sinews through them. 


Now, I thought, it's time, and I said that I had come into the mountains to live with them through the winter, perhaps till next summer; I wanted to get an idea of the Nunamiuts' life now and in former times. 


After my words had been translated, there was silence for a few moments. Then Paniaq said genially: "This is the first time a white man has wanted to spend the winter with us. But it's all right. We Eskimos are not the sort of people to turn anyone away. You can pitch your tent here, and when the winter comes I'll lend you dogs and a sledge." 


It gave me a pleasant feeling that I was welcome.


Soon we were talking of hunting and of caribou, the beast that is always in their thoughts.